The common links in two very different summer shows at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art are thematic idealism and technical bravura. • Probably more important to visitors are their differences. "Picturing Eden" is the larger show, 155 contemporary photographs by 37 artists from around the world, famous and emerging, that loosely or literally link idealism and disillusion, the mythical concept of paradise and gritty environmental concerns. "Language of the Nude: Four Centuries of Drawing the Human Body" is a collection of 56 drawings from the Italian Renaissance to the early 19th century that explores the changing ways artists have portrayed the body, balancing the real and ideal according to their times and tastes. One provokes, the other soothes. Both use beauty as an aesthetic benchmark.
"Beauty" may seem an unlikely word for many of the works in "Picturing Eden," which was organized by the venerable George Eastman House. Images are bizarre or unsettling, rendered more so by vivid colors and large formats. Simen Johan's little boy, for example, digs in a dirt mound that looks to be a grave crawling with maggots as wisps of human hair emerge under his hands. Ruud van Empel poses a young black girl wearing a white dress in a verdant jungle with suggestions both of Village of the Damned and the Edenic fall and loss of innocence. (Note that phallic pink flower near her left shoulder.) Yet beautiful they are technically.
The range of photographic processes is broad. A lot of the artists turn to old methods such as daguerreotypes and photograms, which create only single prints, not multiples. Photograms forgo the camera, laying an object on light-sensitive paper and then exposing it to a light source.
Adam Fuss translates Genesis in a photogram triptych of slithering snake, dead rabbits surrounded by dried flowers, and a baby floating in golden liquid. Vietnamese artist Binh Dahn harnesses the chlorophyll in leaves, laying negatives of battle scenes on them and letting the dim images of war emerge as the foliage dries in the sun. Sally Mann's 1998 gelatin silver print was made using the 19th century collodion process. Its yellowed tones give the landscape an elegiac effect appropriate to the location: the site of 14-year-old Emmett Till's racially motivated murder in 1955. Ghostly faces peer from Mark Kessell's The Residue of Vision, a daguerreotype that he photographed, then enlarged, in which the features are reduced to black holes.
New technology is abundant, too. Mike and Doug Starn dominate one gallery with their complex video in which we're taken Fantastic Voyage-style through a warren of leaves that disintegrate down to their veins with digital stripping. And there are plenty of high-quality ink-jet prints such as Maggie Taylor's intriguing (as always) collages that veer between 19th century macabre and 21st century irony.
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The beauty of "Language of the Nude," the Ringling's second special exhibition, will be more readily quantified by traditionalists. It's art in one of the purist forms, drawing. Though it was for centuries considered only a step toward creating "real" art, everyone believed drawing prowess to be the test of any good artist. Artists studied drawing for years, informally at first as apprentices, then in more formal academies established throughout Europe. And the concentration was on the human body, which historically always figured in the most regarded subjects for art.
In this show, we see lots of lovely flesh and how standards of representing it as something beautiful and idealized changed through the centuries.
Peter Paul Rubens' well-muscled male with attention to correct anatomy reflects the Renaissance reverence for Michelangelo's glorious viscera. Rococo master Francois Boucher was less interested in actually fleshing out details of his women in The Birth of Venus, more concerned with establishing its composition for a specific painting, so the chalk drawing looks as if it were done as a rapid dash.
Compare Jacques-Louis David's (1748-1825) neoclassical drawing, Funeral of a Hero, a meticulously rendered study of a funeral procession from antiquity, with Flying Female Nude by Ignace-Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), a fantasy done with blithe, exuberant strokes of crayon, each reflecting the era and artistic style of its creator.
One of the loveliest and most curious drawings is Albrecht Durer's 1498 pen and ink Female Nude With a Staff. Durer, perhaps the greatest printmaker of all time and one of the greats of the northern Renaissance (he was German), drew as he etched, using lots of crosshatching. Like Michelangelo, his near-contemporary to the south, he was consumed with getting the human body right, and he tries mightily here to do so. But the woman's shoulder is a mess, crudely done and looking deformed. We see more evidence of his unsureness in lines along other contours that were clearly mistakes he corrected. It's an example of greatness evolving and the practice, practice, practice needed to go from proficient to extraordinary.
This is a wonderful exhibition and asks you to look closely at the works. Notice the details, things like hands and feet — were they done with care, indicating a desire to use the drawing as a learning moment, or with haste, in service to the larger goal of figuring out overall placement and proportion? Look, too, at the materials — pen and ink, chalk, washes — and their varying qualities and effects.
Mostly notice how central drawing was to becoming and remaining an artist. And still is. The collection was assembled by the Crockers, wealthy Californians, mostly between 1869 and 1871; Mrs. Crocker donated it to the state in 1885 as part of what is known as the Crocker Art Museum. For many years, the collection was used by students of its art school as models for their own drawings. But drawings are fragile, and now these are mostly stored in a dark vault.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, a superb draftsman not represented in this show, said, "Drawing is the probity of art. To draw does not mean simply to reproduce contours; drawing does not consist merely of line: drawing is also expression, the inner form, the plane, modeling. See what remains after that."
For visitors who want to try their own hand, the museum has set up a drawing studio in the back gallery with easels, materials and statues to copy as the artists in this show often did. Or, if you have a volunteer, to draw from life, the only stipulation being that the live model depart from tradition and remain clothed.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com and (727) 893-8293.